KALAMAZOO, Mich.—At the turn of the 20th century, long before the Civil Rights Era, a Black brick mason built some of the most prominent buildings in Kalamazoo, including the foundation for what has become Western Michigan University. And thanks to a passionate and persistent alumna, the community will finally know his impact.
Albert White, born just two months before the Civil War to parents who escaped enslavement, played a lead role in constructing Heritage Hall, the first structure erected on the University's campus, then known as Western State Normal School. However, due to racism and social injustice at the time, history books did not herald his considerable achievements.
"He was born in 1861. If a man coming out of those extreme conditions—degradation, the worst human atrocity—could rise up and build the first building on a college campus, one he didn't and couldn't attend, then … everybody should know him," says Dr. Karika Parker, B.A.'02, M.A.'07, Ph.D.'22, a postdoctoral fellow with the University's Lewis Walker Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnic Relations.
Initially named a Kalamazoo Literacy Council and WMU dissertation community fellow in summer 2022, Parker was tasked with researching the history of the city's Edison Neighborhood. She went on to install a literacy trail in the area as well as lead a course on her work through Western's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).
AN UNEXPECTED DISCOVERY
Parker quickly dove into her work, spending hours on end in libraries and archives poring through historical texts and pictures of the neighborhood.
"I just wanted to go back in time, as far back as I could go, where there were photos that talked about the different streets and how they were named as well as the community as a whole and what it was that made the community unique," Parker says.
She also wanted to learn if she could find connections between the University and the neighborhood. One day, while perusing a book about influential Black Michiganders at the turn of the century, she came across White's name.
A wider web search turned up an article by the John Hay Center that dove deeper into White's past, identifying him as a prolific builder. Parker learned he was born in Canton, Indiana, where his parents had migrated after garnering freedom from slavery in North Carolina. He worked on a farm as a boy to help support his mother and family. In his late teen years, he moved to Michigan to work on a farm in Richland before meeting a brick and stone mason who made him an apprentice. White was a quick study and became a journeyman at 23 years old, starting his own construction business just two years later.
White and his team—comprising more than 50 employees who were both Black and white—built some of the most recognizable buildings in the Kalamazoo area at the time, including the third Kalamazoo Central High School and Plainwell High School, the first Borgess Hospital on Portage Street, Temple B'nai Israel in the heart of downtown Kalamazoo and several paper mills. All have since been razed, but one important structure still stands: Heritage Hall at Western.
"I about fell out of my chair (when I read that) a Black man built Heritage Hall," Parker says. "I realized we've got a hero on our hands, because thousands upon thousands of people and students have been on this campus" unaware of the influence this Black man had in the University's history.
Parker shared the discovery with students in her OLLI class and scheduled a tour of Heritage Hall—today the University's alumni center—to witness White's work that has been preserved for more than a century. The group also met with WMU President Edward Montgomery.
"I said to the president, 'All of us who have graduated here and all the people who come here have never known that Albert White, this Black man whose parents were enslaved, built our beautiful and historic Heritage Hall,’" says Parker.
The president agreed that needed to change.
"This rich history serves as an example to our Bronco community that resilience and perseverance are key to overcoming obstacles and offers the opportunity for each of us to think big and forge legacies for our families and communities," he says.
"Just as his creativity, entrepreneurial spirit and tenacity led him to pursue a decades-long career in masonry construction during an era of racial injustice and economic inequality, we challenge our students … to pursue their purpose, succeed and serve as an inspiration for the next generation of students."
The University recognized White's work during a celebration at Heritage Hall in November 2023. Local community leaders joined Parker, Edison Neighborhood residents and members of White's family in sharing his story. It was also announced that a permanent installation is being developed so that everyone who visits Heritage Hall will know who Albert White was.
"We are overjoyed that Mr. White will always remain a significant part of Bronco history," Montgomery says.
The installation is expected to be unveiled in spring 2024. Parker is also working on a book about White's life titled, "Brick By Brick: The Man Who Brought the Beacon of Light."
"This research and discovery means a lot to me because, out of all people, I am so honored to have uncovered him and rectify misinformation," Parker says. "Part of my life's work … is to make sure everybody knows (his work) and to celebrate him even beyond Black History Month."
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